"There, that should do it," Nene smiled as she looked over her handiwork. "I'm sure Hideyoshi will love it!"
Nene had woken up early today to prepare a special breakfast for her beloved husband. It wasn't a special occasion or anything; she just felt like it. The servants had asked her to allow them to prepare it, but she had politely refused, adamant that she handle it personally. She took the tray in both hands and headed back up towards their bedroom. Other servants were surprised to see her as she passed, making her wonder if it was herself or the items she was carrying that elicited such stares.
As she passed a mirror Hideyoshi had acquired through trade with the Portuguese preachers, she noticed that her smooth, shoulder-length light brown hair was a mess from her frantic running around all morning. Holding the tray with one hand and supporting it with her thigh, she quickly straightened her hair as best she could with her free hand.
Her favourite yellow kimono was covered in flour and other such ingredients, but a quick dust-off fixed that easily enough. Once she was finally satisfied with how she looked, she continued on, giggling slightly as she imagined how Hideyoshi would praise her for her cooking.
As she reached the shōji, she could just make out Hideyoshi's snoring inside. Hopefully, he would wake up just in time to enjoy the meal before it got cold. Nene quickly but quietly slid the shōji closed behind her and crossed the room to where Hideyoshi slept in his futon. She knelt beside her husband and placed the tray down beside his pillow.
"Hideyoshi-sama," Nene whispered into his ear.
Hideyoshi rolled onto his side to face her, still asleep. He muttered something Nene could swear was her name. She smiled warmly and reached out to shake him awake when she noticed that Hideyoshi seemed much fatter than usual.
In fact, his stomach seemed to have almost doubled in size. How this was possible, she had no idea. Hideyoshi had a reputation for being a fairly small and skinny man, even somewhat like a monkey. As Nene wondered how this was possible, her hand reached the bulge and a small squeaky sound could be heard.
Knowing what the sound was, Nene furrowed her brow and threw the blanket off to expose a young woman in her teens lying beside Hideyoshi. Her hair was short and dark brown with one strand eternally sticking out of the top. The girl rubbed her weary eyes and looked up at Nene as she awoke.
"San-chan?" Nene uttered in disbelief.
"Eh? Oneenee?" San muttered sleepily before letting out a loud yawn.
"Why are you in bed with Hideyoshi?" Nene demanded.
"Eh? In bed?" San looked at Hideyoshi, then back at Nene. "It was cold and Hide-nii's bed looked so warm."
"Wait, you came into bed last night?" Nene asked. How she had failed to notice such a thing when she had awoken this morning completely eluded her.
"Do you two mind?" asked another woman as she sat up on the other side of Hideyoshi and looked over his sleeping form at the other two.
"Shirako-san!? Why are you here?"
"Did you want to get warm with Hide-nii too?" San asked innocently, now finally fully awake.
"Please," Shirako replied dismissively, brushing a long chocolate brown strnd of long hair out of her face. "My bed is much warmer and more comfortable than this one. I just wanted to steal Saru-sama's heart away so that I may bear his heir." Shirako let out one of her trademark haughty laughs, finally awakening Hideyoshi from his slumber.
"Eh? What's going on?" he asked, sitting up and quickly piecing the situation together. "Ah! Nene! I-I can explain... I think."
Before Hideyoshi could even attempt to talk his way out of his current predicament, a loud creak could briefly be heard from the shōji before it completely collapsed inwards, three more women spilling out onto the floor from behind it.
"Ugh, stupid Kai," one in a pink kimono with long black hair berated upon seeing that they were caught. "If it wasn't for your stupid manish muscles, we wouldn't have been found out." She shoved Kai off of her and dusted herself off.
"What!?" Kai screeched, jumping to her feet, her reddish-brown ponytail whipping around like a deadly weapon. "What do you mean, 'manish muscles'!?"
"Exactly what it sounds like," the first woman snapped. "I mean your muscles are the size of a man's. It certainly wasn't your breasts weighing you down."
"Wha-!?" Kai quickly covered her chest, blushing as deep a crimson as her kimono. "Y-You were the one who wanted to lean in closer to listen in, Yodo-dono! I bet you wanted to spy on Hideyoshi-sama so you could find out what he likes so you could win him over!"
It was now Yodo-dono's turn to blush the colour of her kimono. "H...How dare you! I-I don't like Hideyoshi!"
"That's what you always say, but everybody knows you-"
"Now, now, ladies," the third lady interrupted, putting an arm around each of her two compatriots and revealing a large jug of sake in her right hand. The smell of the jug made Yodo-dono wince. "Since we're all up, who wants a drink?"
"It's way too early for alcohol, Māh-nee," San whined as the woman in question poured herself a dish of the stuff.
"Ah, you just wait 'til yer old enough to drink, then you'll know how to really party!" Māhime replied cheerfully before downing the dish in one gulp, her ornately decorated long brown hair falling across her back as she tilted her head back.
"You three?" Hideyoshi was surprised to find all of his concubines awake so soon.
"Hi-de-yo-shi," Nene annunciated angrily, a fiery aura enveloping her intimidating form as she shook with rage. "How many times... must I tell you..."
"Nene! I can explain!" Hideyoshi claimed desperately, but Nene was not convinced.
She removed a small pouch from her kimono's sleeve and threw it to the ground as she screamed, "No excuses!"
The resulting explosion was seen from outside by the passing Mitsunari and Kiyomasa, who stood flabbergasted a moment before Mitsunari shrugged.
"It will take more than that to kill our lord," he said dismissively before continuing on.
"Y-Yes," Kiyomasa reluctantly agreed and did the same.
After being patched up, Hideyoshi sat in silence as he ate his breakfast along with his wife and concubines. Nene was refusing to speak to him, which even his five concubines found to make the whole scene rather awkward.
"Nene, I..." Hideyoshi's weak attempt at talking to his wife trailed off as she very deliberately turned away from him with an audible huff.
"Let's go out and get drunk, Hideyoshi-sama," Māhime suggested heartily.
"He can't," Nene replied agitatedly. "He has a lot of work to do today and can't have any distractions."
"Oh, that work," Mitsunari spoke up, having been invited to join them after he and Kiyomasa had checked up on them earlier. "Kiyomasa and I dealt with all that earlier."
"You... what?" Nene replied, dumbfounded.
"Nene-sama," Kiyomasa said with a deep, respectful bow, "We simply wished to assist Hideyoshi-sama by lightening his load for the day to allow him more free time to... make his choice."
The choice Kiyomasa referred to was that of Hideyoshi's heir. Nene, his wife, was unfortunately unable to bear children, and he wanted a biological son to succeed him as Taikō. As such, he had decided to choose one of his concubines to bear his child, though he had yet to decide which would instil the child with the most ideal characteristics. Naturally, this was something of a sore subject for Hideyoshi's wife.
Despite his best efforts, Kiyomasa's words seemed to make Nene even angrier. She slammed down her chopsticks and excused herself from the room with a cold "Looks like you have your work cut out for you, dear," with a frigid emphasis on the end for good measure. The room fell into silence for a while. Hideyoshi moved to pursue her, but Mitsunari held up a hand to stop his lord.
"Hideyoshi-sama, Kiyomasa and I arranged this to allow you to spend time with your concubines so that you might finally make your choice."
"We worry for your health, Hideyoshi-sama," Kiyomasa added. "Your current lifestyle is... dangerous, to say the least.
Hideyoshi unconsciously rubbed the bandaged cheek where his latest wound resided.
"And we fear for the fate of the Toyotomi clan if something happens to you before your heir is born," Kiyomasa concluded.
"Ah, you two don't need to worry about me," Hideyoshi tried to assure them. "Decades of war have made me able to withstand anything." He placed a hand over his arm to show off the hardness of his muscles.
It was true that Hideyoshi's body was rather impressive despite his age and stature, but even he knew that there were far more dangerous threats than a jealous outburst from his wife. He sighed and took a moment before replying properly.
"Okay, you have a point. But Nene-"
"She needs some space and time to cool off for now," Mitsunari replied, Kiyomasa nodding in agreement. "You focus on choosing the right woman. The Maeda will be here later. I'm sure we can calm her down between the four of us."
"Very well," Hideyoshi replied in a much more formal and authoritative tone. "I will leave this matter in your capable hands. Now, which one of you ladies would like to go-?"
Before he could even finish, four of the five women were all over him, each trying to convince him and the others that she should go first, the debate growing more and more heated with each passing second.
Kiyomasa turned to Mitsunari and said, "I wonder if these ladies might be a greater threat to Hideyoshi-sama's life than any enemy agent..."
Eventually, thanks to the intervention of Mitsunari and Kiyomasa, each of the five ladies was granted a two hour timeslot to spend with Hideyoshi, with a half hour rest in between each. His day began at 9 a.m. with the ever excitable San.
San no Maru-dono - nicknamed simply San by her fellow concubines - was the sixth daughter of Hideyoshi's late lord, Oda Nobunaga, upon whose work Hideyoshi had built to finally end the constant state of war Japan had been trapped in for the better part of a century. San had come into Hideyoshi's service along with many other Oda vassals after Nobunaga's death and had quickly taken a liking to him. She treated him more like a brother than a lover, which had left Hideyoshi conflicted regarding her potential as a mate after she was put forward by the remnants of the Oda. Still, she was fun to be around as she loved to play games.
Such as the one she was playing right now. As soon as they had entered a small garden on the castle grounds, before Hideyoshi had any opportunity to protest, San had declared that the two would play a game she liked to call "Find The Ninja". Hideyoshi had never played the game himself, though he had observed a round or two between San and the other ladies; usually Kai or Māhime. The goal, according to San, was for her to hide and wait for the right moment to "assassinate" him. His goal, naturally, was to spot her before she had the opportunity.
Hideyoshi wondered briefly if the game was somehow inspired by actual attempts on her father's life by enemy spies, but quickly shook his head clear of such thoughts in order to focus on the game itself. He quickly observed the garden's few hiding spots: a large rock, a small pond, some trees, and the roof if she was agile enough.
He quietly and cautiously approached the rock since that seemed the easiest to hide behind. He moved up against the rock and leapt to the other side. There was no one there.
He heard sudden rustling from a nearby tree and looked up at it. The sakura petals were in full bloom, completely obscuring anyone who might be hiding in the branches. Hideyoshi caught a petal as it floated down toward him. It was soft to the touch. Osaka sure was beautiful this time of year.
He let the petal fall, feigning a bumbling attempt to catch it before it hit the ground. He could just make out a quiet snigger over the sound of his kimono flapping around from his exaggerated flailing. Now that he was crouched down without raising any suspicion from his 'assassin', Hideyoshi wrapped the soft petal around a tiny pebble and brought it back up with him as he returned to a standing position. He then feigned ignorance of her presence and moved around the tree, looking in all directions but constantly keeping his back turned towards the tree. He heard a quick rustling of branches and leaves, indicating that San had taken the bait and it was time to spring his trap.
He whirled around and threw the cushioned stone directly at the spot San emerged from as she leapt down towards him, no doubt intending to land on his back and 'assassinate' him. The rock hit her square in the face, eliciting an "Ugyah" and sending her flipping backwards until she landed in Hideyoshi's waiting arms. She took a moment to process what had just happened before sticking out her tongue and knocking on her head.
"I didn't get to be Taikō by letting my guard down and being inattentive, San-chan," Hideyoshi said with a smile.
San looked down, suddenly melancholic. "I wish Papa was like that..."
The image of the traitor, Akechi Mitsuhide, silhouetted against the blazing remains of Honno-ji temple flashed through Hideyoshi's mind. It was Hideyoshi's slaying of the traitor that had drawn San to him in the first place those eight long years ago.
He lowered San to her feet and patted her on the head. This seemed to be enough to lighten her mood as she childishly grinned up at him. He placed a hand on her back and gently guided her back inside to continue their play.
At 11 a.m., Hideyoshi and San returned to one of the sitting rooms, where Mitsunari had prepared some tea for Hideyoshi's first half hour rest. San-chan wasn't fond of tea, so she lay down for a nap.
"Thank you, Mitsunari," the Taikō said quietly as he took a cup from his vassal. "Who's next?"
"That would be... Kaihime, Hideyoshi-sama," Mitsunari replied, a slight hint of bitterness creeping into his voice. Mitsunari had, after all, been the commander Hideyoshi had tasked with laying siege to Oshi Castle, which Kaihime had defended, successfully repelling the invaders. The lady warrior sometimes enjoyed rubbing this fact in Mitsunari's face just to wind him up, although such conceit wasn't normally in her nature. Even so, just about everyone around Hideyoshi knew that Kaihime was Mitsunari's least favourite of the five concubines.
"Ah, she'll have us sparring or hunting, I suspect," Hideyoshi said with another sip of his tea.
"Most likely, yes," Kiyomasa replied. "It may have been poor planning to place her right after San no Maru-dono."
"Don't worry about it," Hideyoshi said, waving off his concern. "Better to get those out of the way while I have the energy."
"I pray for your success, Hideyoshi-sama," Kiyomasa replied with a bow.
"I pray for his survival," Mitsunari said in a more sardonic tone.
Kaihime, as predicted, was practising her swordsmanship in one of the courtyards when Hideyoshi arrived a little later. She would often participate in the swordsmanship contests Hideyoshi arranged for sport. She was the only lady of the court to do so and she tended to do rather well in them.
Hideyoshi quietly took a seat on a nearby rock so as not to break her concentration. She continued her practice swings for a good few minutes, seemingly totally oblivious to his presence. There was something admirable about the figure Kaihime struck as she continued swinging her sword - a certain level of intimidation, but not necessarily a threatening kind of intimidation. It was hard to describe and Hideyoshi suddenly realised that he, much like the lady before him, had gotten so wrapped up in his own thoughts, he had failed to notice that she had now noticed his presence. She was blushing as red as her kimono with embarrassment.
That was it - Kai wasn't the kind to use her power to put others down. Yes, she would take sly jabs at Mitsunari from time-to-time, but she was a good person at heart and she always strove to protect those weaker than herself. Loathe as he was to admit it, even Mitsunari would agree with Hideyoshi's assessment of the lady.
Hideyoshi let out a chuckle at Kai's embarrassed reaction, which only served to make her blush even deeper. "I apologise, my lady," he said with a bow. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"N-No..." she replied bashfully. "I-I was just surprised, my lord. I didn't hear your approach."
"Perhaps all that time playing Find The Ninja is paying off," the Taikō joked.
Kai visibly relaxed and cooled down a little at that.
"So," Hideyoshi pressed on, "what do you have planned for us today?"
"W-Well, I would like to spar with you, Hideyoshi-sama," the lady said after a moment's consideration.
Noticing a pair of bokken nearby, Hideyoshi approached the wooden swords as Kai sheathed and set aside her steel. He handed one to her and they stepped away from each other to assume their stances.
From looks alone, Hideyoshi didn't look like he stood much of a chance in this bout. Yes, his body was still fairly well-toned from his many military years, but he was also a short man - Nobunaga had nicknamed him 'Monkey' for a reason, after all. Conversely, Kaihime was the tallest woman of the court and fairly muscular herself. She was the image that came to Hideyoshi's mind any time one of the foreign settlers referenced the "Amazons" of their myths, her relatively small chest notwithstanding.
Hideyoshi attacked first, lunging forward with a simple strike that he knew Kai would block with no problem. Their blades interlocked, Hideyoshi forced their weapons downwards so he could slide his sword off of hers and use the momentum to swing across her knees. Predicting this, Kai hopped back the second their blades broke contact, easily avoiding the attack.
Hideyoshi followed up with a swift lunge, which his opponent sidestepped before following up with a swing at his midsection. Hideyoshi brought his weapon around to the side in a smooth arc, deflecting Kai's attack, leaving neither in a position to properly counterattack. Both competitors had no choice but to put some distance between themselves with a short hop each.
They were both panting lightly from the adrenaline rush, minds racing a mile a minute to map out any direction the match might go. Hideyoshi lowered his weapon and held it firmly at waist level. Kai, meanwhile, held hers up at shoulder level. He would be aiming up and she down, unless one of them was planning a feint.
This time, It was Kai who went on the offensive, inverting the entire dynamic of the battle by doing so. As predicted, she feigned a high swing, to which Hideyoshi responded with a feigned block, bringing his blade up to shoulder level pointed directly at Kai. He thrust forward, but her weapon was still in position to swing down and force Hideyoshi's blade tip into the ground, allowing a swift, but precise counter strike to the top of his head.
The blade came to rest atop Hideyoshi's topknot, mere inches above his head. Whether Kai had intentionally used the hair to stop her attack short or if it was purely accidental, he couldn't tell. What he was sure of, though, was that this bout was hers. He slowly ducked a little lower and backed away, arms wide and loose to indicate his acknowledgement of the bout's end.
As she lowered her own weapon, Kaihime's grin was wide. "That's another victory for me," she proudly proclaimed.
"What is that now, eleven wins to my nine?" "Hideyoshi asked as he sat down on a nearby chair to catch his breath.
"Twelve to your nine," she corrected him. Was she counting Oshi Castle in that?
He chuckled. "I suppose I should expect no less from Ujinaga's daughter."
"That's right," she replied, her pride and ego growing with each compliment. "My father taught me to win, whether in sport, war or love."
"What was that last one?" Hideyoshi asked, knowing full well what that last one was.
Suddenly realising what she had let out, Kai clasped her hands over her mouth and blushed deeply again. Hideyoshi laughed heartily, while Kai lowered her hands and pouted. "You're a demon, Hideyoshi-sama..."
"Sorry, sorry," Hideyoshi replied, stifling his laughter. "You're just so cute when you're embarrassed."
Kai lowered her head and blushed even further. It was so fun to tease her.
After some more sparring (and teasing), the two returned to the tearoom at 1:30. By now, Mitsunari and Kiyomasa were off performing their other duties, leaving the exhausted duo alone. Hideyoshi called for a pair of servant girls to serve them tea. Cup in hand, Kaihime let out a deep, relaxed sigh as she stretched her tired limbs.
"Perhaps having you spar with me early in such a busy day wasn't the best idea," she said, cringing slightly.
"Don't worry," Hideyoshi smiled. "I'm a lifelong soldier - I'm used to this sort of thing. Besides, it was fun."
Kai averted her eyes in embarrassment. For all her bravado and confidence, Kaihime still had a surprisingly shy side to her. She had always been something of a tomboy, which Hideyoshi suspected may have contributed towards it.
"I've never seen a woman more skilled with a sword, my lady. Your father often tells me how proud he is of you."
"Eh? He does?" Kai asked, her ears perking up.
"I hear he talks about you even more often since Oshi Castle. I certainly know I'd be proud if my daughter could do what you can."
Kai smiled. "Thank you, Hideyoshi-sama. Will you be alright with your next appointment?"
Hideyoshi looked over the timetable Mitsunari had written up for him earlier in the morning. "I should be fine," he replied. "Getsukei-In is next. I can't imagine she'll cause too much trouble..."
Needless to say, Hideyoshi was completely wrong. Getsukei-In (or 'Shirako' to those of equal or higher standing) had the potential to be the biggest handful of the bunch. While not as youthfully energetic as the previous two ladies, this lady of the former ruling clan had always been quite privileged. As a result, she was very direct and blunt in addition to being stuck up in the eyes of most people who met her.
This caused much more conflict than any one person could ever hope to defuse, even the Taikō. In this instance, it was Maeda Toshiie what was the target of her (perhaps unintentional) abrasiveness. Toshiie, like Hideyoshi, had been given an affectionate nickname by Nobunaga - 'Dog', in his case - and Getsukei-In had no issue with 'poking the dog', so to speak.
Toshiie could get a little hot-headed at times, which tended to make him an effective warrior, but in domestic situations, his wife Matsu was usually around to keep a level head and reign him in. Right now, though, she was visiting their daughter, Māhime, while Toshiie was attempting to visit Hideyoshi.
Although she (hopefully) had not intended to insult Toshiie, her words had implied that the Maeda clan was worth less that her Ashikaga clan. Hideyoshi was ashamed to admit that he couldn't deny that he could understand her thought process, as the Ashikaga had been the ruling clan until Nobunaga drove Shogun Yoshiaki out of Kyoto nearly twenty years ago.
"Toshiie, please," Hideyoshi begged. "She didn't mean what she said."
"She called me a mongrel and said the Maeda clan are peasants compared to her!"
Hideyoshi doubted she would say something quite so blunt in spite of how well he knew her. He could only wonder how she had worded her statement for it to come off that way. Either way, he couldn't just take either one's side without knowing the full story.
"Toshiie, please calm down," he encouraged before facing the alleged offender. "Getsukei-In, please. What exactly did you say?"
"There was no misunderstanding, Saru-sama," she replied indifferently from behind her trademark hand fan, emblazoned with the Ashikaga Clan's horizontally-striped circle emblem. "I am of the former ruling clan, he was compared to a dog by his own lord. I was merely pointing out the difference between our stations."
"What was that!?" Toshiie demanded, his face bright red and a vein popping on his forehead. He seemed about ready to physically attack her. Hideyoshi quickly grabbed his friend from behind and pulled him away from the offender. After quickly leading Toshiie to where his wife and daughter were so they could calm him down, Hideyoshi returned to the room Getsukei-In was waiting in. She was sat at a small table, drinking a cup of tea as if nothing had happened. Then again, in her mind, what had happened was nothing.
Hideyoshi sighed as he closed the shōji behind him and took a seat opposite her. "You know, you can't keep doing this."
"Doing what?" she asked casually, almost dismissively.
"Starting fights. Toshiie is not only one of my closest friends, but also the head of a well-respected samurai clan. What you said to him was out of line, Shirako-san."
Shirako place her down cup on the table and sighed. "You really are blowing this quite out of proportion, Saru-sama."
Hideyoshi shook his head in irritation. "I just don't understand you, Shirako-san. This attitude of yours, this belief that you're somehow above everyone else, regardless of their achievements or standing in my court..."
"It is only natural," she replied, opening her fan to cover her self-assured smile. "I am of the Ashikaga, am I not? My family ruled Japan for almost two hundred and fifty years."
"But the Ashikaga have been out of power - out of relevance, some say - for almost twenty years, Shirako-san," Hideyoshi replied agitatedly. "You're not part of the ruling family anymore. I've given you a lot of leeway because you're one of my concubines, but this has to stop."
Shirako's eyes narrowed and her fan lowered, revealing her mouth moving to form some kind of protest, but Hideyoshi quickly cut her off.
"Unless I choose you to mother my child, you are just a woman of the court, no higher or better than any other. And right now, that's seemingly like an increasingly less likely possibility."
His words seemed to have the desired effect as her eyes widened and her jaw hung slack in stunned silence. Her head lowered slowly, her fringe covering her eyes as the seriousness of what Hideyoshi had said sunk in. Her surprise at Hideyoshi's word was matched only by his own surprise as he realised that she was shaking all over, small droplets of water falling from her eyes onto the backs of her clenched hands. Hideyoshi stood speechless as he observed this.
"I... I am an Ashikaga," she eventually whimpered through her tears. "My family ruled this country for so long... did so much for its people... and now, we'll only be remembered as a succession of inept rulers, overshadowed by a nobody from Owari."
Hideyoshi had always been extremely irritated when someone spoke ill of his late lord, even if he did understand their reason - and he did understand her reason. In her mind, Nobuanga and the previous alliance of villains had taken everything from her. He supposed he should consider himself lucky that she didn't transfer the blame onto him as Nobunaga's successor, as certain others had.
He moved around the table to sit beside her and placed a hand on hers. She gasped and stiffened up suddenly, motionless as a statue. "I'm sorry," he said.
"W...What?" she managed through her quickened breaths.
"I'm sorry for speaking to you that way, but I need you to understand that you're position in life has changed. You're still very high up the social ladder and you're important to me, but you need to treat everyone else with respect, whether they're lower down than you or not."
"'m s-s-sorry..." she gasped laboriously. "I-I...I'm... t-t-terrible..."
Hideyoshi pulled her closer and wrapped an arm around her for comfort. "No. You're not terrible. You've just... got a lot to learn, is all."
"I-I just w-w-want my fammm'ly to be remmmemb'red for... for the good they d-did."
"And that's why you want to bear my child?"
Shirako nodded silently.
"See? You're not terrible. You place the well-being of your family above all else. This world needs more people like that. Okay? I'm not going to kick you out of 'the running' or anything like that. Just calm down, relax. We both have a lot to learn and I think we can help each other get there, okay?"
Again, she nodded before she slid down onto his lap, where she lay in silence as Hideyoshi stroked her hair until she fell asleep.
Come 4 o'clock, Hideyoshi was starting to show signs of weariness from his 'babysitting', as Toshiie had put it upon Hideyoshi's arrival in the tearoom. His old friend had, evidently, not quite gotten over what had transpired between himself and Getsukei-In.
She had slept through most of their time together, but had woken up long enough to have some tea and have a nice discussion about her family's exalted history, which had left Hideyoshi's throat a little sore. Still, he had convinced her to find Toshiie later and apologise, so that was a win, he supposed.
"Who's next on your list?" Toshiie asked as he opened up the scroll containing Hideyoshi's timetable. "Mā?" he asked in surprise upon seeing his daughter's name. "Well, good luck with that, buddy. She can be a handful. And it looks to me like you've already had three."
Hideyoshi simply sighed from his low position with his head resting on the table. He hadn't said much so far, knowing he'd need his voice for later, especially if he was to get anywhere with Yodo-dono.
"I tell ya, Hideyoshi, if it's a lady to raise your son you're after, you want a woman like Matsu."
"Like Nene?" Hideyoshi asked, still not quite recovered enough to lift his head.
Toshiie considered this comparison a moment. "Yes. But children can be... problematic if not raised by their blood parents. Trust me..." Toshiie's words conjured up images of his rapscallion of an adopted nephew, Keiji. Hideyoshi shivered at the thought of himself or the child's mother being tricked into an icy bath as Toshiie had so infamously once been.
"You want a woman you can trust to run the place while you're away. Someone responsible and patient - not that I'd complain if you chose Mā, anyway."
Hideyoshi chuckled. "Well, we'll have to wait and see, won't we?"
"I'll have a word with her before you see her - ask her to go easy on you."
"Hey, how long was I fighting in wars before I achieved peace?" Hideyoshi countered, finally lifting himself up. "I think I can handle myself."
"Underestimating your opponent, eh? Isn't that breaking one of Sun Tzu's first laws of warfare?" Toshiie quipped.
"It's spending two hours with a woman, Toshiie, not waging war with a rival clan."
"Clearly, you've never raised a child before," Toshiie replied, his dark expression indicating a story he would rather keep secret.
"I suppose I shouldn't come to you for advice then," Hideyoshi said with a sly smirk.
Toshiie shook his head, smiling himself. He hoped his wife was having as easy a time as he was...
"You're saying you caught Hideyoshi-sama in bed with his prospective mates?" Matsu repeated in summation of the long-winded recap of the morning's events that Nene had just provided. The two were drinking tea in a room on the opposite side of the castle to their respective husbands.
"Honestly, that man," Nene pouted. "He just does as he likes with no regard for how it affects his reputation or his family."
"It sounds to me like the girls are the ones who took the initiative to earn points for themselves while you were away," Matsu said calmly and rationally.
Nene appreciated Matsu serving as a voice of reason. She was right, of course, but there was more to it than that. It wasn't so much that this had happened - more that it, and similar events, had happened so many times.
"I love him, Matsu. I really do. But his indecisiveness is just so..."
"Disappointing. I understand that this is an important decision that will affect the future of the country, but I feel like this decision is taking priority over everything else. Is it selfish of me to want him to hurry up and decide so we can go back to they way things were?"
Matsu placed a hand on her friend's own. "Not at all. But we have to consider the good of the land and its people. If Hideyoshi-sama chooses the wrong woman, even with his and your influence, the child could become just another inept son of a powerful daimyo." They certainly didn't want that. Too often had clans and land been left to an ill-prepared son out of familial fealty, only for said son to then drive them to ruin.
"What should I do, Matsu?" Nene asked desperately.
Matsu squeezed her friend's hand tightly, comfortingly. "You should help him to choose. You should stay by his side and observe the women around him to provide your own perspective. I know he appreciates your input and you should use that to ease his burden, thereby easing your own."
Nene considered Matsu's words and nodded slowly. A part of her wanted to stay mad at Hideyoshi, but she knew that wasn't going to do anyone any good. Matsu was right. Nene would have to help Hideyoshi make his decision - he really was hopeless without her. But that thought didn't make her feel much better.
Māhime's turn was next and while it took the most out of him, Hideyoshi found his time with her to be the least eventful. Energetic as always, she had quickly dragged Hideyoshi to a popular eating establishment in the city to hold a party with all the patrons. She did this often; drinking, partying, playing games, exchanging wild stories both fabricated and true. Her activities of choice would have been right up Hideyoshi's alley were he, say, twenty years younger, but he was far past his prime by this point.
"Whuss ron, *hic*deyoshi-samaaaaaa?" the lady asked drunkenly as he mulled over these thoughts, her cheeks burning bright burgundy as she leaned in close. Her eyes darted back and forth between the still clearly sober Hideyoshi and his mostly untouched cup.
It wasn't as if she had gotten drunk very quickly. By now, the two had been here for almost an hour, but Hideyoshi had been too distracted thinking about this morning and his chat with Toshiie, while the lady had gone at her own normal pace. That is, until she had been challenged by several large men to a drinking contest, which she was compelled to accept. She truly did take more after her 'Uncle Keiji' - or at least, the fantastical hyperbolic version of him that was spoken of far and wide.
In truth, Keiji had only really been a rambunctious prankster when he was much younger. He had since mellowed out somewhat and begun to take his responsibilities more seriously, though he did still enjoy a good joke or party every now and then. The stories would have one believe he had never changed and still regularly tried to trick his uncle into another ice cold bath to this very day. Hideyoshi could only wonder which version Māhime would take after - and more importantly, which would her hypothetical child take after?
Hideyoshi was returned to the present when Māhime wrapped an arm around his shoulder tightly and pulled him closer before shoving his drink directly into his mouth, forcing him to gulp it down quickly as his eyes threatened to bulge out of their sockets in shock. Seeing this, his partner banged her fist repeatedly on the table with uproarious laughter.
"You look like a fish on land!" she cried as if this were genuinely the funniest thing she had ever seen. As she rolled on the floor, her sides visibly aching from laughter, Hideyoshi couldn't help but muse that she herself looked like a fish flopping about on land.
"Birds of a feather, huh?" he muttered with a smile.
"Not birds," the lady managed in between bouts of laughter. "Fishes!"
"Yes, yes," Hideyoshi replied with a dismissive wave. "Fishes, fishes, fishes. We're a regular pair of fish."
Mā stopped rolling and laughing so suddenly, Hideyoshi thought for a moment that she had actually passed out from laughing so hard. She had done it before. But this time, she was simply lying still, staring upwards at nothing in particular.
"Hey... am I pretty?" she asked, taking Hideyoshi a little aback.
"Pretty?" he asked, both a request for clarification and to check that he had heard her properly with her now depleting drunken slur.
Of course, she was beautiful. Shoulder-length, light brown hair inherited from her parents was kept in the most elaborate style of any of Hideyoshi's prospective mates and decorated with large white bow ribbons. As usual, she accessorised her light purple attire with various flowers she had picked herself. Her face was a burning red, though Hideyoshi suspected it was more than just the drink causing this.
Hideyoshi lay back onto the floor beside her. "Of course you are. What's wrong?"
The lady sighed. "Do you think men are put off by my drinking and partying? My mother..."
"Is this because you're older than she was when she found love with Toshiie?" Hideyoshi asked, hitting the nail on the head if the glint of surprise and acknowledgement in her pleading eyes was anything to go by. "You shouldn't compare yourself to her."
"Because I'm not as good as her?" Mā asked, more an expression of her own feelings than an inquiry into Hideyoshi's.
"What? No. No, not at all! You should just concern yourself more with who you are by yourself than how you compare to her. It's not that she's better than you at all, just that you are your own person."
"But I don't know who I am," she whispered. "Am I really the party girl who takes after Uncle Keiji? Or do I just fake it to get attention? I'm not sure anymore, Hideyoshi-sama. What should I do?"
Hideyoshi placed a hand firmly on her shoulder. "Let me help you, Māhime. Me and the others. If you'll let us, we'll help you figure out who you are and where you're going. Regardless of who I ultimately choose, you're all special to me and I want you all to be happy with who and what you are."
After a moment of staring into his eyes and soaking in the sincerity she saw there, Māhime's lips curled upwards. "I can see how you were able to attract so many daimyō to your side, Hideyoshi-sama."
Hideyoshi reached out and wiped away the tears that had started to form under Māhime's eyes and smiled in response. "Well, I hardly did it by striking an imposing figure, did I?"
Māhime chuckled. "Nene-sama's lucky to have you, you know."
Hideyoshi's smile faded. Nene...
Mā's expression shifted to one of sympathetic understanding. "I'm sorry, Hideyoshi-sama. I didn't mean to..."
Hideyoshi shook his head. "No, no. I'm sorry. This is supposed to be your time, not mine. We should be having fun now while we have the chance right?" He sat up, adopting a more cheerful disposition that didn't fool the lady beside him for a second.
"Hey, come on. I can work things out with Nene later. In my own time. For now, let's order another round." Hideyoshi raised his hand to signal the owner. Māhime sat up, her expression one of unspoken guilt.
Māhime accompanied Hideyoshi back to the tearoom in the castle, where Toshiie and Matsu would meet them. Or so they thought. Upon their arrival, the two were greeted by an older woman in a dark purple kimono, her greying hair tied into a neat bun.
"Minami-dono?" Māhime asked upon seeing her.
The other woman, turned and bowed deeply from her seiza position. "Good afternoon, Hideyoshi-sama, Mā-dono."
"Good afternoon," the newcomers replied, bowing, a little taken aback by her presence.
Minami-dono was one of Hideyoshi's earliest concubines. She had borne him a child herself years ago, but young Hidekatsu had tragically passed away at age six. Minami-dono had had no more desire to have children after that, but she had remained close to Hideyoshi and Nene ever since, in spite of that.
She indicated two cups of tea waiting for them on the table in front of her. They took their assigned positions and thanked her for her service. She simply chuckled.
"You don't need to thank me for such a simple task," she said. "However, there is a certain matter I would like to discuss with you Hideyoshi-sama."
"Oh, of course," Hideyoshi replied quickly. "What do you need?"
Minami-dono smiled. "Well, Mitsunari-dono visited me earlier today. He explained this whole situation you've found yourself in with choosing an heir."
This surprised Hideyoshi. Why would Mitsunari visit Minami-dono, a person he barely knew, to tell her about a situation that she wasn't involved in?
"He proposed," she continued, "that I help you manage your... what do the Westerners call it? Oh, yes: 'harem'."
Hideyoshi looked from Minami-dono to Māhime, one member of his 'harem', if Hideoshi was understanding the concept accurately.
"This all seems rather personal, so if you prefer-" Māhime's offer to excuse herself was met with the older woman shaking her head.
"No, no, this concerns you as well, my dear. Please, stay." At her request, Mā lowered herself back into her seat. "Thank you. Now, as I was saying, Mitsunari-dono and the others have their work to do. They simply cannot continue taking time out of their busy schedules to assist with this matter as they have been. He requested that I do so instead, given my intimate knowledge of your desires and the needs of the court. If you will accept me, I will fulfill his request and help you to make your choice, Hideyoshi-sama."
Hideyoshi stared as the woman bowed, as if presenting herself for his approval. He exchanged a glance with Māhime, who could only shrug in response.
"Y-Yes. Of course," he said finally.
The older woman raised her head and smiled warmly. "Then, I shall take my leave to bring my things to the castle. I look forward to living with you again, Hideyoshi-sama." She gave a wry smile and exited the room, leaving the other two in stunned silence until Māhime spoke up.
"Wow. Who knew Minami-dono was such a tease?"
Seven o'clock marked the beginning of the final timeslot of the day. Yodo-dono was last on the agenda and she was visibly irate when Hideyoshi met her in one of the courtyards by the biggest cherry blossom tree on the premises. It reminded her of her late mother, especially when illuminated by the full moon.
"Yodo-dono?" Hideyoshi spoke up as he approached. "I'm sorry you had to go last, but-"
"It doesn't matter," she interrupted without turning to face him. "It's not like I wanted to spend time with you or anything."
"Well, then," Hideyoshi said after clearing his throat, "is there... anything in particular you'd like to do?"
"Not really," she replied flatly. "I didn't choose to have my name put forward to become one of your concubines and I would have gladly turned it down, given the opportunity. Why would I ever want to be associated with the man who killed my parents?"
Yodo-dono - or Chacha, as she was known in her youth - was the daughter of Nobunaga's younger sister, Oichi, and her husband Azai Nagamasa. The Oda and Azai had once been in a seemingly unbreakable alliance. Nobunaga, as was custom, had married his sister off to the Azai head to cement the alliance. Despite being arranged for her, Oichi could not have been happier with the arrangement and had fallen so very deeply in love with her suitor.
However, Nagamasa was a man of honour and duty. As a result, when Nobunaga had made a move against the Azai's longtime ally the Asakura, Nagamasa had marched in their defense, leading to the annihilation of the Azai and the death of Nagamasa. Hideyoshi had been part of the force that had surrounded Nagamasa at Odani Castle, where the Azai lord's life had ended.
Oichi had returned to the Oda at Nagamasa's insistence, later married to Oda retainer Shibata Katsuie by Hideyoshi, as a measure to maintain peace with the Shibata following Nobunaga's death. Naturally, as the two major players in the battle to succeed Nobunaga's ambition, the two had clashed at Shizugatake, where Katsuie and Oichi had died together.
Following this, Oichi's three daughters had been taken in by Hideyoshi and Chacha had become his concubine. Hideyoshi felt bad, of course, so he had decided to try and ease this girl's suffering however he could, though his ability to do so was... limited, to say the least.
"You what!?" she snapped suddenly, whirling around to face him. "You're sorry? You had no choice? You fought against my father at Anegawa and Odani. Then you took three districts of Ōmi as your own and based yourself in Odani, his home, after he was dead."
"And after Nobunaga was dead, you still couldn't leave my family alone. You attacked Shizugatake and forced my mother to commit suicide. But that's just my family. Can you imagine how many other families you must have destroyed in your conquest? Not just those from famous clans - all of them, every peasant family forced into your conflicts. How can you possibly answer to all those people?"
"I know," he mumbled before speaking louder and more clearly. "I know that a lot of people - samurai, soldiers, peasants - a lot of people died so that we could finally have peace in this country. I'm not proud of every action I've taken to get here, nor, I suspect, would Nobunaga-sama be, were he here."
"Perhaps, future generations will conclude that the end ultimately justified the means. Perhaps not. But that's fine. They can think what they like of me and my methods, as long as they can live in a world without war."
"A world without war? You really think that's what you've achieved? You think you can maintain that with your methods?"
Hideyoshi sighed deeply. "No. I don't. For this country to thrive, we need someone who was born into a world of peace, not a world of war. But he will also need to understand war. All of us - you, me, the others, Nene - we have lived war. We can teach my son, guide him so that he doesn't make the same mistakes we did."
Yodo-dono's eyebrows raised as he said this. "That is... unexpected."
Hideyoshi suddenly took Yodo-dono's hand in his, causing her to blush and sputter speechlessly. "Yodo-dono."
"I am eternally sorry that your parents couldn't live to see this era of peace. I don't expect you to forgive me for the part I played in that. But please, for the good of the land, will you help my guide my son?"
"G-Guide him? What...?"
"You understand a side of war I never could. I want my son to understand it as well. I want him to understand war so he knows how to avoid it. I'd like your perspective, whether or not you end up his mother, so that no one else ever has to go through what I put you through."
She stared in silence, stared into his eyes. She seemed to recognise the sincerity in his gaze and her expression softened a little. "W-Why would you want... my input if he wasn't my son?" she asked finally, averting her eyes.
Hideyoshi thought about his answer a moment before responding. "My son will determine the future of this nation. I want him to be wise by the time he takes the reigns. Your views are contrary to most everyone else in the courts. That dissenting opinion, one that isn't without merit, will help give him perspective on my life that he won't receive anywhere else."
"You want me to be honest about him?" she asked, her expression one of utter confusion as her eyes returned to his.
"Yes," Hideyoshi nodded.
"You want me to tell him how much I hate you?"
"And all the horrible things you've done to get here?"
"He won't be able to avoid the mistakes of the past if he doesn't learn about them himself."
Yodo-dono, again, stared blankly at him. "I... I never knew you could be so critical of yourself."
"I wasn't, really. Not until you came here, anyway. It was you who gave me this perspective with which to look back on my life. I know firsthand how valuable your input is, Yodo-dono. That's why I want you to stay and open my son's eyes in the same way." He released her hand and lowered himself into a deep, unexpectedly respectful bow. "Please, Yodo-dono. For the sake of the country, if nothing else."
Yodo-dono looked around quickly, seemingly hoping no one was watching. She seemed unsure how to respond, as if he had opened her eyes in the way she had his.
"I... I will, but..."
Hideyoshi leapt to his feet and took her hand again, bringing the receding blush back stronger than ever. "Thank you, Yodo-dono, thank you!" he cried.
Yodo-dono pulled her hand back and averted her gaze, fidgeting uncomfortably. "Look, I... I may have... misjudged you, Hideyoshi...sama. I-I need some time to... consider this."
"Of course," Hideyoshi replied obliviously. "Oh, but if you need some time alone, we can just call off-"
"I never..." Yodo-dono interrupted, biting her lip. "I never said I had to do it right now..."
Hideyoshi smiled warmly. "Shall I call for some tea then?"
Yodo-dono nodded silently. She would have a lot to think about.
At nine o'clock, Hideyoshi's long, tiring day finally came to an end. He couldn't deny that it had been fun, but perhaps it would have been a better idea to designate a longer period of time to each lady across multiple days. Then again, he had a country to run, so it would have been impossible to do so.
Shortly thereafter, Hideyoshi and the six ladies were eating together around a small table. Nene often took it upon herself to cook food, regardless of the staff's objections. She said it was unhealthy to not eat a 'home-cooked' meal every once in a while. No one actually eating her food ever objected as she had a natural knack for the art or cooking.
The ladies were discussing they day they'd had, both with and without Hideyoshi, while he and his wife remained in uncomfortable silence. Even amid their own discussions, the deafening silence between the two did not go unnoticed. The five ladies continued their discussions, partly just to keep the room from becoming completely devoid of life.
Even so, their discussions all reached natural conclusions by themselves and they found themselves unable to force the conversations any further. The depressing silence seemed to become thicker as the ladies became too uncomfortable to even continue eating, leaving the room totally silent.
It was Māhime who took it upon herself to lighten the mood, something she was usually rather adept at. "More please!" she shouted, holding up a bowl for more rice. Nene, as the one to serve the food to her husband and his 'harem', nodded and provided a second helping after a moment of surprise.
"Ah! No fair, Mā-nee!" San called out. "Me too! Me too!"
"Don't forget about me," said Yodo-dono, pushing her bowl forward lightly.
"Not until I have had mine," Shirako demanded.
"I-I'll have some too!" Kai called out with her own bowl ready.
Nene was a little taken aback by the sudden desire for more. She seemed to understand the five's intentions and thanked them with a second helping each. Though it did little to raise her spirits, the tension was reduced significantly.
Once every last bite of the food Nene had prepared was consumed, the servants entered to remove the utensils. It was evident that they could feel the residual tension and hurried from the room to escape its clutches.
Māhime lay down on her back with one hand on her stomach and the other propping her head up like a pillow. She sighed loudly to get everyone's attention. "Wow, you're a really great cook, Nene-sama. Hideyoshi-sama's really lucky to have you."
"I know, right?" Kai chimed in hand on her own full stomach. "I wish I had a husband I could prepare food like that for."
"Were it that you could prepare food of this astounding quality, dear Kai," Shirako retorted in a transparently sly manner.
"Yeah, Nene-sama really- Hey!" Kai fumed.
"You're so silly, Kai-chan!" San cried.
Even Yodo-dono struggled to stifle a laugh as Hideyoshi tried in vain to prevent the conflict from escalating. Nene quietly excused herself. The sound of the shōji closing cut through the noise and made everyone freeze.
"It didn't work, huh?" Mā sighed from her prone position.
"Were it not for the uncouth-"
"Just for once, shut up," Kai interrupted Shirako, who surprisingly acquiesced.
"What are you waiting for, you idiot?" Yodo-dono demanded of Hideyoshi. "Go after her!"
"She's your wife, Hide-nii!" San threw in with puffed out cheeks. "It's your job to make her feel happy!"
"You're the only one who can cheer her up, Hideyoshi-sama!" Kai declared.
Māhime and Shirako simply nodded as Hideyoshi's gaze passed over them. He nodded in response and sped out of the room. The five ladies exchanged satisfied glances once he was gone.
"Well, isn't this an interesting development?" Māhime muttered to herself with a smirk.
He found her easily enough. She was sat at the edge of the nearest courtyard. The area was perfectly illuminated by the large full moon on full display in the starless sky above. The air was still. The only sound to be heard aside from the shuffling of Hideyoshi's clothes was Nene... crying?
She froze stiff at the sound of Hideyoshi's voice before hurriedly wiping her tears to keep him from seeing. His approach was slow and quiet, as if trying not to alert a grazing deer. He sat, in equal parts gingerly and awkwardly, beside his crying wife.
"Nene, are you...?" he was in the process of placing a hand on her shoulder when he trailed off and pulled his hand back. She was shaking, from crying or the cold, and Hideyoshi knew it was his fault. He hadn't specifically done anything to upset his wife. Rather, it was his lack of doing a specific something that had lead to this.
"Hideyoshi..." she whimpered. "I'm fine, really, just..."
"Nene, I'm so sorry." Hideyoshi pushed on past his worries and placed a reassuring hand on his wife's shoulder. "All this time, my focus was on choosing a primary concubine, I never thought about how it affected you."
"N-No, I was selfish. This is an important decision that will affect the future of this nation that only just found peace again and I was only thinking about losing you."
"Losing me?" That surprised him. "Nene... what are you talking about?"
"I just... I worry, Hideyoshi. I worry that, with so many other women around you... women who can offer you... more than I can, that you might not love me anymore."
Hideyoshi gently placed a hand against Nene's cheek and turned her to face him.
"Nene," he said seriously as he stared deeply into his wife's deep, brown eyes. "Those other women, my concubines... yes they're beautiful and each, in their own way, special to me. But all they will ever be to me is close friends and the potential mother of my heir in light of your... situation." They both winced at the subject he narrowly tiptoed around.
"But you, Nene, you are the only woman I love. The only woman I will ever love. I swear to you that you are the only one for me and nothing will ever change that, no matter how I may feel about the others. I love you, Nene."
With that, he leaned in and he kissed her. He meant what he said. Every word of it. She was his wife. The love of his life. And he knew she felt the same for him as she kissed him back. The moon shone down on the pair: the Taikō and his perfect, beautiful, loving wife that he had always felt unworthy of keeping to himself.
But she was his, in mind, body and soul. She had stuck with him all throughout the rocky path to unification, despite his infamous philandering ways and the time had had to focus on war rather than giving her the attention she so deserved. She was still here and he knew, as her lips formed a smile as they pressed against his, that she always would be.
He pulled away slowly, staring deeply into her eyes, and she into his. He reached down to pull a beautiful pink lily free from the nearby flowerbed and placed it delicately behind Nene's left ear. She smiled. They held their hands against each other and their fingers interlocked as if they were made for that sole purpose. There was no more need for words. They were of one mind and one soul.
That is, until the shōji behind them came crashing to the ground, spilling the five concubines out across the wooden floor. Before either could say anything in response, all five began scrambling to their feet, commenting on the scene and arguing and name-calling and ultimately ignoring the pair.
Hideyoshi turned to his wife in exasperation. She shook her head and smiled happily.
"Looks like we have our work cut out for us, dear."
DeviantArt Release Date: 10th September 2016
I started this way back on the 27th of December 2014 and I've been working on it off and on since. Motivation was an issue and I wonder if I actually have attention problems.
The concept spawned from a thought I had: Why has no one made a harem series based on an actual harem? I was probably doing my research on the Sengoku Era when I thought of it.
I used stock anime personalities as the starting point for the characters' personalities, but took them in directions that made them a little more rounded and deep than what's typical of the genre.
Minami-dono's role as the harem nanny was originally going to go to Enyū-In instead, but once I learned more about Minami-dono, it had to be her. I realise Kaihime is pretty much the same as her Samurai Warriors counterpart, but that personality is perfect for her in a harem anime setting. Her colours are also a nod to SW, as are Nene's.
With regards to the title, I reached it from this idea: This is a a Japanese series. The original version is called Saru no Harem (Monkey's Harem), which works well enough in Japan, but not in the west. The name is shortened to Saruem, which is the name it becomes known by with the western fanbase before the official release. Like with Higurashi or Hagani, the western release keeps the Saruem name with a subtitle added for better clarification on what it's about. Yes, I went that far I have issues help
Character Bios: /011i7x3yrcht